How does daydreaming affect your stress levels?

I spent most of last week being trained as a Mental Health First Aider. One of the concepts we discussed on the course was that of the “stress container”. You may have come across this concept before, but it’s worth repeating in the context of immersive and maladaptive daydreaming, as it provides another useful way of thinking about your daydreaming and your relationship to it.

We can think of our resilience to stress as being like a container – a jar, bottle, tank – whatever analogy works for you. The stressful things that happen to us as we go about our daily lives are like water flowing into the container. Not sleeping well, rushing to get to work on time, having an argument with a colleague or family member, losing our keys, whatever it may be, we all experience mini stressful events all the time. This is like a constant trickle into the stress container. Then there are the larger events that come along from time to time – moving house, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship – that can suddenly drop a large amount of water into the stress container.

The size of your stress container is shaped by your genetics, your personality and the accumulation of your life’s experiences. Everyone’s is different. This is why some people can function well under stress for an extended period, while others in the same situation really struggle. When more stress flows into our container than it can hold, the container overflows. An overflowing stress container can result in us feeling exceptionally fragile and irritable, snapping at friends and colleagues, or feeling overwhelmed. And, if not addressed, it can lead to a range of mental health problems.

What can we do about it? It is vital that we let water out of the container on a regular basis, and we do this through self-care. Think of it like a tap on the bottom of the container. When we open the tap by taking care of ourselves, we allow some of the water to flow out and away, making space for the new water that will inevitably come. Self-care means different things to different people, but generally if it relaxes and recharges you, it probably qualifies as self-care.

So, what does all this have to do with daydreaming? Well, for many of us, daydreaming is something we do to escape the pressures of day-to-day life. It’s enjoyable. It makes us feel good in the moment. Now, if you have a healthy relationship with your daydreaming, by which I mean that you have enough control over it that it isn’t negatively impacting the rest of your life, it could well be that daydreaming is a form of self-care. It’s a way to turn on the tap for a little while and let some of the stress out of your container.

But for many maladaptive daydreamers, daydreaming isn’t self-care. Instead of being like opening the tap, it’s like putting a rubber sheet across the top of the container to temporarily stop any more water coming in. And it works in the moment. You temporarily protect your stress container, so you know it’s not going to overflow in the next few minutes, and you can relax. Until you snap out of the daydream and back to reality. That’s like taking the sheet away. All of the water that collected on top of the sheet drops in at once. And if you feel guilty about the time you spend daydreaming, or you’ve neglected other responsibilities in order to daydream, then you’ve added some extra water. So although the daydreaming felt good in the moment, it hasn’t reduced the level in your stress container. In fact, it’s probably increased it.

This analogy gives us another way to assess whether our daydreaming habit is helping or harming us. If you use daydreaming to boost your mood, temporarily disconnect from your problems and recharge your batteries, and if you feel better after you’ve daydreamed, then your daydreaming is probably letting water out of your stress container and can be a healthy part of looking after yourself. However, if you use daydreaming compulsively as a way to escape from your problems and the pain that they cause, and if you find when you snap back to reality you feel even worse than before, then your daydreaming is likely to be part of the problem.

Stress is bad for us. So whether your daydreaming helps you to manage your stress or contributes to it, your priorities are the same. You need to find ways to turn on the tap and let the stress out. Don’t judge yourself by the size of your stress container or the major events that may have contributed to how full it is – those things are largely beyond your control. Focus first on turning on the tap – treat yourself with kindness and compassion, recognise when your container is getting full, don’t feel guilty about refusing commitments that will add more water, and do more of the things that turn on the tap. You know what they are; making them a priority in your life is the hard part. But it may help to remember that:

the process of working to make your own life better will enable other lives to get better

Ralph Marston